LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—Josh Harrellson wondered two months ago if he had the heart to keep playing basketball.
The Kentucky senior center found the answer in the lonely moments before practice, as he completed another difficult conditioning session mandated by John Calipari as punishment for comments he made on Twitter venting his frustration over the coach’s reluctance to praise him in any variety.
“I knew I couldn’t let my teammates down,” Harrellson said. “I knew they were counting on me.”
Now more than ever.
Harrellson scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds on Friday as the 11th-ranked Wildcats beat No. 22 Louisville 78-63, a performance so complete it left his normally verbose coach virtually speechless.
“Josh had 23 points and 14 rebounds?” Calipari asked while glancing at the stat sheet. “Oh my gosh.”
Calipari wasn’t the only one.
While the Cardinals focused most of their frontcourt defense on freshman Terrence Jones, Harrellson had the game of his life. He made 10 of 12 field goals—including his second 3-pointer of the season—as the Wildcats (11-2) controlled their instate rivals over the final 30 minutes.
He walked off the court in the final moments and received a hug from Calipari, a moment unfathomable in October as Harrellson found himself buried deep in his coach’s doghouse.
Calipari told Harrellson he was proud of him, and offered Harrellson’s determination as proof that careers can turn around no matter how late it seems. Harrellson languished on the bench most of last season behind freshman All-American DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Daniel Orton and Perry Stevenson.
“Last year I just didn’t have time for him, and that’s not fair,” Calipari said.
That shouldn’t be a problem now. Kentucky is talented but not very deep. Harrellson is part of a tight six-player rotation. The extra conditioning he’s doing combined with the longer leash to go out and play through mistakes has allowed him to flourish.
He has admirably filled the void left by the NCAA’s decision to rule freshman center Enes Kanter permanently ineligible, but his offensive explosion on New Year’s Eve was never supposed to be part of the deal. Yet there he was throwing down dunks and knocking down jumpers and earning Louisville’s respect in the process.
“I wouldn’t say Harrellson caught us by surprise, we just didn’t do what it takes to stop him,” Louisville guard Chris Smith said.
The Cardinals didn’t do a great job stopping Brandon Knight either. The freshman guard scored 25 points and took command in the second half whenever the Cardinals started chipping away at an 18-point deficit.
Louisville (11-2) hit nine straight shots at one point while slicing the lead to 59-49, but whenever Kentucky appeared to be in even a hint of trouble, the ball would end up in the hands of Knight. He lacks predecessor John Wall’s athleticism, but is developing into a better decision-maker.
He ran Kentucky’s dribble-drive with precision, pulling up for a 3-pointer (finishing 4 of 6 from beyond the arc) when the defense sagged off him or dishing it to a teammate after slicing through the lane.
“I though Brandon had a great floor game,” Calipari said. “Now he’s running our team. He’s a really smart player.”
Knight’s intelligence helped the Wildcats make good decisions as they quickly relaxed following some jittery opening minutes. Kentucky shot 51 percent from the field, turned it over just 13 times and never lost its poise during the series’ first game inside Louisville’s new downtown arena.
Preston Knowles led Louisville with 22 points and Smith added 15 points and six rebounds, but the undersized Cardinals—who played without leading rebounder Rakeem Buckles, who is out with a hand injury—couldn’t match up with the stronger Wildcats.
Kentucky outrebounded Louisville 36-25 and held distinct advantages in points in the paint (36-26) and second-chance points (18-9).
“It doesn’t take any smart answers, they were the better basketball team,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “We’ve got to stop hunting shots. We’re a little limited right now in that we don’t have a power forward.”
Both sides pledged a more genteel approach this time after last year’s ugly 71-62 Kentucky win, a game featuring 51 fouls, five technicals and a couple of wrestling matches.
Things weren’t nearly as chippy this time. There were no technicals and only one instance where referees stepped between players. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t intense, at least early. Both teams played erratically in spots and out of control in others.
Yet there was little doubt once things settled about who was in control.
“They are going to get better and better,” Pitino said of the Wildcats.
Kentucky forward DeAndre Liggins swarmed the point guard, making it difficult for the Cardinals to get into any kind of offensive flow. If Louisville couldn’t get a 3-pointer or a pick-and-roll, it stalled.
The Cardinals led by six points early and Kentucky appeared to be in trouble when sixth man Doron Lamb went to the bench with two fouls in the first half. Instead, the Wildcats picked up the pace.
Kentucky outscored Louisville 29-12 over the final 14:10 of the half to take a 35-24 lead. The Wildcats were on their way to their sixth straight win.
“We have a chance (to be special),” Calipari said. “Now let’s go take it up a notch.”